For a lean, sculpted body, it’s time to rethink high-intensity cardio workouts and drop the pace, writes Victoria Lambert
Step away from the treadmill. Remove your running shoes. Heck, you might want to sit down. Because I have news that could make your cross-trainer grind to a halt.
According to experts, cardio – that supposedly crucial heart-pumping exercise that helps us stay trim and healthy – might not be the answer after all.
All that running may cost you muscle power. Those ab crunches may make you fatter. Your bottom will never perk up.
What you need to be doing instead is slow exercise – a fresh approach to keeping fit that is, happily, also responsible for the sort of lean, sculpted bodies we aspire to.
Indeed, the right type of slow exercise is not just about looking good but also improving heart and lung function, as well as building strong bones and joints.
At the forefront of the “no-cardio” revolution is personal trainer Sarah Lindsay, the 36-year-old behind Roar Fitness.
A three-time British Olympic speed skater, you might imagine Lindsay would demand her clients stick to high-intensity fitness regimes – but she laughs at the notion.
“I think the idea of a personal trainer watching someone use a treadmill is a rip-off. And people who spend a lot of time running on the roads can place stress on their adrenal glands, which makes them increasingly tired. Plus, we’re just not all built to run.
“I’ve nothing against cardio if you enjoy it, feel like it is good for your brain or offers thinking time. But you will never get a sculpted look that way. That only comes from lifting heavy weights.”
Dr Azma Masood is director of the Rev5 clinic in Windsor, which offers a programme of five highly tailored slow but intense exercises carried out on special equipment with a trainer.
She says that working out unhurriedly is safer and helps you burn fat as well as build muscle. Slow exercise also engages the slow-twitch fibres in our muscles – fatigue-resistant and good for endurance training – which store the most glycogen in the body.
“That glycogen then gets mobilised and used as energy, rather than being stored as fat,” Dr Masood says.
“Plus, when you exercise muscles slowly, it means you are not risking injury. You can also perform the movements precisely to gain maximum benefit.”
Slow exercise is not an easy ride, however.
Dr Masood adds: “It is harder. To be effective, you have to get to the point of muscle fatigue. My trainer pushes me to the stage where I can’t move my muscles any more – even if my life depended on it. Afterwards, you feel spent.”
Expect a pounding heart rate, too, if you try the Lagree Method, which has recently arrived in London from Canada.
Essentially a form of Pilates, this uber-slow workout, which lasts 50 minutes, is carried out on a machine called a Megaformer.
Stretches are timed – four seconds of extension and four seconds of contraction – and users praise the way it raises the heart rate, while lengthening muscle fibres.
But what if you are time poor and slow exercise sounds far too ponderous?
With our busy modern lives, options such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which promise to help burn fat and build muscles in short bursts of energy, can seem simpler and more realistic.
Personal trainer and sports scientist Kate McTaggart, aka the Transformation Coach, says that while HIIT workouts can be useful, they are not the answer for those of us tied to our desks.
“It’s nonsense to think you can lose weight by just adding HIIT into your lifestyle,” she says. “You can’t lose weight in five minutes a day with an otherwise sedentary existence.”
Lindsay explains that we each have a different “fat-burning zone”: the time when our bodies use fat as fuel, depending on our current level of fitness.
What is certainly true is that once you raise your heart rate above 155-160 beats per minute you are not burning fat anymore.
“At this point you are burning carbs, or if you have taken carbs out of your diet, you’ll burn protein, which will come from muscle. So HIIT can leave you less muscular than before. That will lower your metabolic rate and make fat even harder to keep off.”
She adds: “People want to be told they can eat a little of what they like and train 15 minutes a day – but if it was that easy, we’d all be doing it.”
So could the answer be slow and sustainable, not fast and flimsy?
Both Lindsay and McTaggart recommend a professional assessment by a trainer or physiotherapist to assess your weak spots and learn how to use muscles in the best way for your body.
“I hear time and time again,” says McTaggart, “clients worrying that if they’re not sweating, they’re not working – but we should be concentrating on how to do exercise right.”
She recommends Time Under Tension (TUT) workouts, which refer to how long a muscle is under strain during a set of weight-lifting repetitions.
“This means slowing down your movement. So during a biceps curl, you would do one slow repetition – curl up for a count of four, down for four – and then do three biceps curls at normal speed. It’s a fantastic way to improve your strength.”
In particular, she notes that if we want more pert posteriors, HIIT is definitely not the answer.
“If you sit on them all day, your hip flexors tighten and shorten, and the glutes lengthen and relax.
“Over time you don’t know how to contract them properly – you can’t even feel when you are doing it. Running in short, hard bursts won’t strengthen those muscles.”
Lindsay worries that people are still intimidated by the gym, and scared of free weights because they don’t know what they are doing.
She points to the increasing number of online tutorials that can teach exercises, while in the gym instructors are always there to help if asked.
She says: “It is impossible to coach yourself.”
Some women worry that this type of “slow exercise” might make them “bulk up”. But Lindsay offers reassurance that you’d have to train pretty hard and single-mindedly to see that sort of effect.
Thrillingly, she adds that using a no-cardio method negates the need for endless ab crunches to get a flat stomach.
“When you are weight training you are using abs to brace yourself, so there’s no need for specific exercises. In fact, crunches can be a waste of time. If you are carrying a bit of tummy fat and you do loads of crunches, your abdomen may end up a little bigger.”
But what about our hearts and lungs?
“Lifting weights can raise your heart rate just as high as a spinning class,” says Lindsay. “And if you combine circuit training with weights, your heart rate will be through the roof.
“Once you can do a move properly, then you can load it with weights for more effect,” she adds. “And once you are strong, you can train in every area.”
How to get in shape in your own time
Start with three sets of 13-15 repetitions three times a week.
The tempo should be slow and controlled to increase the TUT (time under tension), which a lot of people forget about.
These can be done at home with dumbbells or practised in front of the mirror before going to the gym if it helps with confidence.
Try to get hold of a set of 3-10kg dumbbells for home – this will cover the above exercises for a fair while.
The weight held must progress (get heavier) as often as possible to ensure you don’t plateau.
Goblet squat (quads, glutes, back, hamstring)
Feet shoulder width apart.
Hold dumbbell in hands against chest.
Keeping chest high, slowly squat as low as possible without tipping forward.
Drive back up to standing position.
Lying tricep extension (triceps)
Lying on bench with feet under knees. Arms straight up vertically in start position.
Keeping shoulder still, bend elbows until the dumbbells are next to your ears.
Without moving your shoulder, straighten your elbow to return to start position.
Split squat (quads, glutes)
Front foot (weakest first) on the step, body upright, dumbbells by your side in relaxed arms.
Lunge forward pushing the knee over the toe.
Without stopping at the bottom, push back to start position.
Seated shoulder press (shoulders)
Sit upright on a bench (back supported).
Hands directly over elbows in bottom position.
Push dumbbells above head bringing together but not touching.
Slowly reverse movement to start position. – The Daily Telegraph